Section: Opinion

The Kenyon Connection: David Bowie Edition

The Kenyon Connection: David Bowie Edition

Editorial Illustration by Henry Uhrik '18.

If you’re like me, winter break is a time to consider what lies ahead at a time when those musings aren’t bundled with considerations of course requirements. David Bowie’s death was the kind of thing I could compartmentalize and disregard with homework due the next day, but the winter break timing made it hard to easily parse. It’s fortunate in a way, though, because Bowie’s death allows us the opportunity to ponder a life narrative rich with genuine and rare insight into how pupils of a liberal arts education such as myself ought to learn and live.

President Sean Decatur, in fact, beat me to the punch on this observation. He wrote an incisive essay toward the end of break on the ways in which Bowie’s biography is an exaltation of the liberal arts lifestyle. The title, Turn to Face the Strange, is itself a line from Bowie’s “Changes” — the line, Decatur notes, is a demonstration of Bowie’s commitment to regularly confronting and experiencing alternative viewpoints, lifestyles, etc. This, too, is the mantra of the liberal arts student, who must be well-rounded and well-learned in every discipline. Amen, but Bowie was something more remarkably liberal arts than this philosophy alone: he was Ziggy Stardust.

To clarify, Ziggy Stardust is a pseudo-real-life character created in Bowie’s seminal fifth album of the same name, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The bizarre nature of Ziggy’s existence is something largely unmatched since; Bowie spent the two years following the album’s release in full character as Ziggy Stardust during any kind of public appearance. Journalists interviewed Ziggy, and fans cheered the arrival of the rock star Ziggy Stardust on stage. This phenomenon touches upon the most-overlooked facet of Bowie’s artistic portfolio: that he originally trained as an actor. Ziggy Stardust played like a musical, with two fantastic tracks, “Five Years” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, as the operatic bookends, setting up the narrative and ending it. From this fantastic album, the enduring, essentially liberal arts mantra of courage, self-discovery and diverse personal interest lives vicariously through the character of Ziggy Stardust. The genius of Bowie, and the source of his lasting personal influence on the world, is that he adopted this persona in the real world, rendering the fable something more than fiction.  

This feat of human creativity conceals a greater lesson than its constituent morals, however. There is a reason we don’t mourn the death of Ziggy Stardust — Bowie had put the character to rest many years prior, as the role had become, essentially, too real. His beleaguered resignation of this role is the footnote to the liberal arts anthem that Decatur identified: Be what you love, be a top-notch actor at everything else. If that sounds misguided, consider first the reality that Bowie was essentially an actor at music — as he swore off the rock star Ziggy, so too did he walk away from music when he told NME in 1973, “From now on I’ll be concentrating on various activities that have very little to do with rock and pop.” In reality, the musician that had touched so many hearts was playing a role — one, indeed, that he would eventually be forced to cast aside.

Why was it time? This is perhaps the deeper wisdom to be extracted from all this, and why self-knowledge of when you’re acting, and when you’re being yourself, is so important. In 1976, Bowie said to Rolling Stone, “I became Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie went totally out the window. Everybody was convincing me that I was a Messiah, especially on that first American tour. I got hopelessly lost in the fantasy.” I urge my fellow first years, and sophomores still mulling over their majors, to choose something they love. It’s so easy to play scientist or play economist, for example, because you love the fantasy of being the businessman, or all the Wall Street glitter. Just make sure it’s who you really are; otherwise, you’re committing your own Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.

 

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